A few days after the Petraeus scandal broke in November, Fred Kaplan's excellent new book, The Insurgents, showed up in the mail. I ripped open the package it came in (I love getting free books in the mail) and contemplated the photo on the front cover. There was David Petraeus striding towards me, leaning determinedly forward, lips pressed together in a Mona Lisa smile. Well, maybe it's a smile: with Petraeus-gate followed by Paula-gate and Jill Kelley-gate and so on, it's also possible to interpret Petraeus's expression as anything from a look of grim resolution to a well-controlled wince.
Looking at that book jacket, my first thought was a frivolous one: Huh, I bet Fred -- until recently a fellow fellow of mine at the New America Foundation -- is ruing the day he agreed to put David Petraeus on the cover of his book.
This frivolous thought was of course quite wrong. It was surely appropriate for Kaplan to have made Petraeus the central character in his finely-grained account of the rise and fall of the "counterinsurgency insurgents," and from a commercial perspective, I suspect that David Petraeus's picture has never sold more books. (Even Paula Broadwell's gooey panegyric has been lifted from the depths of obscurity to the heights of heartland airport newsstands.)
Readers hoping for salacious tidbits will be left sorely disappointed, however. Kaplan's not that kind of writer, and this is not that kind of book. On the contrary: Kaplan's book offers an important corrective to the scandal-obsessed media stories about Petraeus. Petraeus was, inevitably, many things to many people: a stuffed shirt obsessed with the nitpicky details of military grooming standards; a driven narcissist who'd do anything to succeed; the general who kept the Iraq war from being a fiasco from beginning to end; a lonely warrior too easily seduced by a younger woman on the make. But these caricatures miss a point Kaplan drives home: whatever else he was, Petraeus was a passionate intellectual, deeply committed to learning, challenging, and questioning, and to developing new talent and testing new ideas.
The counterinsurgency community, which Petraeus both symbolized and helped create, enjoyed only a brief moment of preeminence before backlash set in -- but the COIN revival also constituted a courageous and far-reaching effort to reconceptualize war and reimagine the American military.
I've been thinking a lot about Kaplan's book this last month -- partly because it's just a good read, rich in texture and never less than wise -- but partly because these last weeks have seen a resurgence of articles and blog posts lamenting the American military's fearsome resistance to change. In December, Tom Ricks ran a guest post by a young Marine lieutenant complaining that "among my peers, the ones with ideas are the ones getting out, because they just don't feel the organization values them." In January, another Marine lieutenant decried the Corps's "endemic tolerance for mediocrity or outright incompetence."
It's not just the Marine Corps that has come in for scathing criticism in Foreign Policy of late. The Army? Jason Dempsey -- a lieutenant colonel and the author of Our Army, an excellent book on civil-military relations -- argued in November that the Army values tactical know-how over strategic vision, and Tim Kane, author of Bleeding Talent, took the Army to task last week for rigid personnel policies that push out the most creative and talented officers. Ricks himself continues to go after the generals, most of whom he suspects should be fired.
The Navy and Air Force come in for their own share of criticism if you dig deeply enough into Ricks's blog, as do the service academies and the military schoolhouses, but you get the basic idea. There are a lot of disgruntled grunts out there -- and a widely shared complaint is that This Man's Army (and Navy, and so on) may pay lip service to creativity, vision, and big ideas, but in reality, big ideas are as welcome in the military as ants at a picnic.